“Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’ ” (Matthew 18:21–22)
Peter thought that when he asked Jesus, “as many as seven times?” he was being more than fair. After all, how many times could he really be expected to forgive someone who continually asked for forgiveness and then returned to committing the exact same offense? Jesus had just finished telling them that a brother who sinned against them and didn’t repent got only three chances to change his ways. After that he was to be an outcast, treated as no more than a “heathen” in their eyes.
Seven probably seemed quite generous to Peter. But what did Jesus reply, reminding us of God’s love for us? Seventy times seven! Peter would have understood that didn’t mean 490 times, because at that time “seventy times seven” would be taken as a number too great to be counted. Jesus meant that Peter should keep forgiving long past the point of keeping track.
Don’t Hurt Yourself! Jesus is calling us to do two things: to consider our own sinfulness and to forgive others. The former is important because it helps us with the latter. Whoever is aware of his own shortcomings is quicker to forgive them in others.
Let’s not hurt ourselves by a desire for revenge! Whatever grief someone has caused you will be far outweighed by the grief you’ll cause yourself by nursing your anger and bringing down condemnation on yourself. Whoever hurt you will be judged in the end, but if you stay angry at that person, you’ll only succeed in harming yourself.
For if we have the right outlook, no one can harm us: even our enemies will help us. This is true not just for people who wish us ill. Even the devil, who hates us so much more than they do, cannot help but provide us with chances to gain glory in heaven. For an example of this, we only need to look at the story of Job. If we can withstand everything the devil can throw at us, why should we be afraid of human enemies?
Master the Art of Love. Look how much you gain by meekly bearing spiteful things that are done to you. First, and greatest of all, deliverance from sins. Second, fortitude and patience. Third, mildness and big-heartedness (because if you train yourself to be kind to those who hate you, you’ll be even better at serving those who love you). Fourth, freedom from anger, which nothing is equal to. Because whoever is free from anger is also free from its side effect, despondency. Thus you won’t waste your time laboring in vain and being sad. If you forget how to hate, then you also forget how to grieve. Instead, you’ll receive true joy and many blessings. So in the same way that hating others punishes ourselves, we benefit ourselves by loving them.
The greatest thing, however, is to make sure you’re right with God. If you’ve sinned, he will forgive you; if you do what is just, you’ll receive greater confidence. Therefore, let’s master loving everyone so that, though we are unworthy, God will have compassion on us.
Have you been injured by someone? Rather than hating them, you should pity them, because you are not the one who has turned away from God; they have. Remember that when Christ was on the cross, he rejoiced for himself but wept for those who were crucifying him. This should be our attitude as well, and the more we are injured, the more we should pity those who are injuring us.
Did someone insult you in front of everyone? What a great opportunity to practice forbearance, so that you might be a witness to all.
Has someone told lies about you? What does it matter? God, after all, is the ultimate judge, not anyone else. The liar has only made things worse for himself. Not only will he have to account for his own sins, but also for what he has said about you. He might have made others think badly of you, but he’s done wrong in the eyes of the Lord.
If all this isn’t sufficient to persuade you, remember that even Jesus was slandered by both Satan and men. Not only did the devil tell lies about him, but he was believed, and the lies were of the most awful sort. He proclaimed that Jesus was possessed and a deceiver and an adversary of God.
Have you done good things and received nothing but evil in return? Most of all, this should make you pity whoever has treated you this way. Because they have made you like God, “who makes his sun rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:45).
Freedom from All Anger. If you feel that following God is too hard, then look to the great examples you have. Joseph, who suffered countless things and yet was good to his brothers. Moses, who prayed for those who schemed endlessly against him. Paul, who endured countless curses and sufferings willingly. Stephen, who even as he was stoned, pleaded with the Lord to forgive his attackers.
Having considered all these things, cast away all anger, so that God might forgive us all of our sins, with the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and always, world without end. Amen.
Adapted from Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 61, by St. John Chrysostom.